Four-years-old. Shiny black Mary Jane church shoes on my feet. Likely wearing a dress. It was the early 80’s; my hair was cut in a 1970’s style bob. I sat on the pew in the chapel of a small ward building; my legs barely reached beyond the edge of the bench. Each week I took a piece of bread and a tiny plastic cup of water; the tiny cups were fascinating. I wondered when I would grow tall enough to be able to pass the sacrament.
This is the memory that jumped to mind in answer to a friend’s recent question on Instagram: “How did you come to realize that there is gender inequality in the world and/or the church?”
When my four-year-old self learned that I would never be allowed to pass the sacrament because I was not a boy, I felt disappointment, confusion, and shame. Was I not good enough? If I wasn’t good enough, why not? Was there something wrong with me?
This first memory of gender inequality at church was followed by other similar experiences. Singing ‘I Hope they Call Me on a Mission’ in Primary and standing up in response to the request for those who want to serve to stand only to be told to sit down because I was a girl. Boys served. Not girls. Sitting in a dark chapel watching satellite broadcasts of General Conference and wondering why only one woman spoke during the conference. Watching my 12-year-old crush pass the sacrament because he was a boy. Wondering what it would be like to say the sacrament prayers. Sitting squirmily through Young Women’s lessons singing ‘Why is it when I hear a baby cry/My arms reach out in love I can’t deny/Yes my nature is divine’ and thinking there must be something very undivine about my nature because I did not love crying babies nor did I feel an affinity for children in general. Watching my male peers in the young men scouting program go on campout after campout; high adventures I wistfully wished I could participate in because they sounded like so much fun.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the discrepancies I noticed between female and male experiences in the church, I figured there had to be a reason for this. There had to be a reason. There just had to. After all, this was church. As a college student studying abroad in Jerusalem, our group hiked up Mt. Sinai in the middle of a dark night to be at the top for sunrise. As I walked down the mountain in the bright morning, I thought about priesthood and how during Moses’ time only Levites could be ordained to the priesthood. There was a limit at that time on who could hold the priesthood so that must be the reason why black people could not be ordained until after I was born and why females still could not be ordained. Limits on who was allowed. That must be the reason for my experiences. Only boys were allowed to do certain things like camps and missions and I wasn’t a boy.
There is a second part to my friend’s question:
“What was your feminist awakening?”
Fast-forward a couple of decades from college. I now have daughters. One daughter who, at four-years-old, asked me the same question about passing the sacrament that I had asked. Our experiences had different endings because I gave her a different answer than the one I received. I told her I did not know why only boys were allowed to pass the sacrament but that it wasn’t ok.
Like many other women, the stirrings of awareness regarding the gender inequality I lived in could no longer be squashed after birthing daughters. Each experience with gender inequality was like a papercut. Exquisitely painful, sometimes slow-to-heal, yet the initial pain passed quickly leaving a wound small enough to be minimized as not a big deal. At the same time each papercut left a scar. I started thinking more carefully about what I had been taught was my role as a female in the church. I compared what I was taught with my continuing experiences in the church. I completed graduate school while working full-time at a professional job with pregnancy added to the mix. My experiences at church as a new mother were hellish. I felt forgotten, erased, and unsupported. The economy was booming when my first child was born and I noticed that several articles in the then Ensign magazine praised stay-at-home motherhood and cautioned against women pursuing professional aspirations. My second child was born during the Great Recession and I noticed that Ensign articles now praised mothers who had continued their education and secured higher paying flexible employment to support their families. I wondered if I was better off making my own choices for my family instead of following the advice of Ensign magazine articles.
I cheered when Bonnie Oscarson gave her last conference address as the General Young Women’s president because in this address she said that every young woman needs meaningful opportunities to serve in the church. Women at Church by Neylan McBaine had been published four years previous to President Oscarson’s talk and I thought that finally someone in general leadership had gotten the message Neylan wrote about in the book. I naively expected that general and ward church leadership would take President Oscarson’s word seriously and implement practices that provided young women with meaningful opportunities to serve. Neylan provides a wealth of ideas to expand the role of women in the church; ideas that all fall within the bounds of the church handbook. I .lso figured that a decent ward council was capable of brainstorming ideas. I had wrestled with questions about how females could serve in the church and assumed that others were also wrestling and troubled by the current structure. I had studied the Doctrine and Covenants and realized that priesthood ordination was not required to pass the sacrament to the congregation. Surely that was an obvious place to start – let the young women and young men take turns or work together to pass the sacrament. What more meaningful service could young women participate in than passing the sacrament?
In the years since President Oscarson’s talk, I have come fully into a feminist In the years since President Oscarson’s talk, I have come fully into a feminist awakening and stoped downplaying, ignoring, and justifying the deep gender inequality in the church. The depth of inequality was hammered home to me a few weeks ago when my ward was dissolved and absorbed into other wards. The reason given is that the composition of ward membership fell outside of requirements for a ward. (Handbook 36.2) Basically, all of the men eligible to be bishop had already been bishop. As the stake president spoke the day the ward was dissolved, he talked at length about the young men and how there were only two young men in the ward to pass the sacrament and that adult males had to participate in blessing and passing the sacrament every week. That the ward had more than enough young women to pass the sacrament never seemed to have occurred to any male leader. It was then that I suddenly realized that it never would. Currently, only men can be ordained in the church. It is irrelevant that priesthood ordination is not required by scripture to pass the sacrament to the congregation. It is a handbook requirement because young men passing the sacrament is the beginning of creating a leadership pipeline to bishop and beyond. (Note: This is not a reflection on any of the genuinely kind people in ward and stake. This is a critique of a system where boys and men are allowed to do more than girls, women, and other genders.)
Only men. Only men. Only men. I know so many good men who are members of the church. These good men (there are bad ones) tend to fall into a few categories: men who are polite yet oblivious that women and gender minorities have a vastly different church experience than they do; men who are aware of the inequality yet are either apologists as I used to be or they are scared and defensive; and finally there are men who see the inequality, empathize with the pain, and speak up for change. I dearly value the men in this last category.
If I could tell my four-year-old self anything, it would be this: You are loved. There is nothing wrong with you. The church you belong to has much work to do. You, my dear, are ok.
Awesome post with excellent points. Thank you!
The church tells us they are just little cuts that don’t hurt much, but I think some of the injuries are actually broken bones and arterial bleeds. Take the priesthood for example, when women ask why we can’t have priesthood, we get told how we wouldn’t want it anyway. It is just setting up chairs and helping people move and boring priesthood meetings. But when the young men get lessons on the priesthood, it is the greatest power on earth and they have more authority in their little finger than what the president of the US has. It is the power of God and the greatest gift they will ever be given. They are told how much it will help them grow spiritually. So, why can’t women have it? Because they already have much more important things to do by changing diapers and getting no sleep because the baby won’t stop crying and women get their spiritual growth by being in the company of infants 24/7. It is both so great that women are always subject to it and so unimportant that women wouldn’t want it. So, women get told that not having priesthood is just a tiny hurt, while men get told that not having priesthood is the worst thing possible. No, I think not having priesthood is as big on an injury to women as it would be to a man.
Having grown up in this church this resonates with me strongly it feels good to know others feel the same way. It’s heavy to be told as a child you can’t do things men can because God wants it that way.
You and I have had very similar experiences. I’ve seen ward geographic encasement that seriously swing in odd ways to lasso in men to rule the ward. It’s exhaustive. I’m looking forward to it ending.
Thank you for writing this post. Your words are important. May we all pray for change.